by Helen Meservey
how does Tom Cruise strike you as a Japanese samurai warrior?
If you give him the chance, hell strike you for 2 hours
and 45 minutes in The Last Samurai, the latest warrior epic
by director Edward Zwick. The film opened nationwide a month
ago and is still playing in local theaters.
Bearing comparison in spirit to Dances With Wolves and even
Lawrence of Arabia, The Last Samurai stars Cruise in the role
of western warrior who comes to respect and embrace the ancient
traditions of his noble enemies.
The year is 1876, and Cruises Nathan Algren is a decorated
American military officer who is haunted by his role in the
savagery of Custers Last Stand. Reluctantly, Algren agrees
to be dispatched to Japan to teach the emerging imperial army
to fight like western soldiers and quash the rebellion of indigenous
samurai warriors. He is soon captured by them, however, and
spends several months in captivity in a remote village where
is nursed and tended to by the family of the samurai leader.
Here, he discovers the traditions of honor and the practice
of humility and compassion that has advised Japanese culture
If it all sounds a little formulaic, youre getting warm.
In addition to the internal metamorphosis we know enough to
expect, theres also a beautiful widow to contend with,
a pair of adorable kids and a hothead warrior, subservient to
the top gun, who would just as soon have the enemys head
as his surrender. There is the inevitable showdown between Algrens
new enlightened samurai self and his past deeds, and you can
expect more than one great spiritual deliverance for more than
But even with its predictability and unevenness, The Last Samurai
is entertaining and even quite beautiful. The costumes and the
sets are great fun to see, and the scenery is stunning: There
are beautiful shots of snow capped mountains and busy 19th century
agricultural villages tending to their daily routines. There
is also a brief scene in historic San Francisco, where trolley
cars trundle up and down the famous hills toward a bay that
has long yet to be fit with a Golden Gate Bridge.
Even so, the saving grace of the film is the depiction of the
samurai way, most notably through warrior chief Katsumoto, played
Ken Watanabe. Powerful yet humble, Katsumoto personifies the
samurai code, or Bushido, which considers honor, discipline,
bravery, and service to be the very height of lifes callings.
In factand this point is made plain on more than one occasiona
true samurai would gladly take his own life if his lord desired
Where Tom Cruise fits into all of this is at the box office.
His winsome smile and leading-man charm do serve to bring some
of this history into the narrow American focus. But this story,
as the title reveals, is not so much about the samurai as with
the last of them. And that is, after all, an American concoction.
For KUSP, this is Helen Meservey.